How healthy is your heart? It’s probably not something you think about daily but it matters for health and longevity. Many people who have cardiovascular disease don’t know it, as they may experience few symptoms in the early stages. It’s only when heart disease progresses that the characteristic shortness of breath, fatigue, and chest pain alert you that something is wrong.
Although there are tests a doctor can perform to determine whether you have cardiovascular disease, most require a visit to a health care facility. The simplest screening test for cardiovascular disease is a treadmill test. For this test, you walk on a treadmill as the technician gradually increases the incline so your heart has to work harder. All the while, they’re monitoring your heart to look for signs that your heart isn’t healthy enough to keep with the challenge.
An At-Home Heart Screen
What if there was a way to get an idea of how healthy your heart is at home? According to a new study presented at the meeting of the European Society of Cardiology, how quickly you can walk upstairs could be an easy, at-home test for screening your heart health. Best of all, you only need a flight of stairs and a stopwatch to time yourself. If you don’t have stairs at home, you could test yourself by climbing up flights of stairs in a public building.
Based on their findings, you can get a good idea of how healthy your heart is by timing yourself as you climb four flights of steps. According to the researchers, it should take no more than 1.5 minutes to climb 4 flights of stairs. If it takes longer, it may be an indicator that your heart is struggling to meet the demands of exercise and you should talk to your physician.
According to findings from the study, the ability to climb four flights of stairs in 1.5 minutes suggests that your heart is reasonably healthy, although this at-home test can’t completely rule out heart disease. However, most people with significant cardiovascular disease will have to slow down due to shortness of breath or fatigue and won’t be able to do the task in 1.5 minutes or less.
If you can complete the test in less than 1.5 minutes, so much the better! According to the study, people who made the climb in under 45 seconds achieved an exercise intensity of 9 to 10 METS or metabolic equivalents. Being able to do this was associated with a lower risk of mortality over 10 years. For example, based on the study, being able to climb 4 flights of stairs in 45 seconds or less was linked with a mortality rate of 10% over 10 years. In contrast, taking 1.5 minutes or longer to navigate 4 flights raised the risk of mortality over 10 years to 30%. That’s a significant difference!
Even Treadmill Stress Tests Aren’t 100%
The results of the at-home stair test compare favorably to the results of a treadmill test, although it can’t say 100% that you don’t have heart disease. Even a treadmill test isn’t 100% reliable. Exercise treadmill tests are also designed to detect significant cardiovascular disease where an artery is blocked by 70% or more. So, it may not pick up mild cardiovascular disease.
Also, one out of three people in the study who could climb the stairs in 1.5 minutes or less still had abnormal heart function during imaging. So, it’s not a foolproof test. If you’re at high risk of cardiovascular disease, you should see your physician regularly and let them know about any symptoms that you have like chest pain, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, dizziness, or exercise intolerance. Risk factors for cardiovascular disease include:
- Lack of physical activity
- History of smoking
- Family history, especially a first-degree relative who had heart disease before age 50.
- Eating an unhealthy diet
- High LDL-cholesterol or low HDL-cholesterol
- Elevated triglycerides
- High blood pressure
- Being older
- Having type 2 diabetes
Even if you don’t fall into one of these categories, cardiovascular disease is still the number one cause of death in Western countries. So, make sure you’re following your “numbers,” including lipid levels, blood pressure, and fasting blood sugar. Also, sit less and move more. Sitting too much is an independent risk factor for heart disease and stroke, independent of whether you do a formal workout.
In terms of diet, there’s evidence that eating a Mediterranean diet, an eating plan that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fish over red meat, sugar, and processed food, may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and reduce overall mortality. Choose more whole foods and less ultra-processed junk. If you drink alcohol, do so only in moderation. Beyond one drink a day for women and two drinks per day for men, the risks may outweigh any cardiovascular benefits you get from drinking red wine.
The Bottom Line
How fast can you climb four flights of stairs? Based on this study, it’s a simple test that may say something about the health of your heart. Give it a try, but keep in mind, it isn’t foolproof. Also, take care of your heart by leading a heart-healthy lifestyle that includes lots of whole foods and movement. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and managing stress too.
Studies link mental and physical stress with a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. When you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol and adrenaline that place added stress on your cardiovascular system. So, discover what calms your mind and body and makes you feel chilled, whether it’s high-intensity exercise, a gentle yoga workout, meditation, or a walk in nature. Then, do it regularly. Your heart will appreciate the TLC you give it.
European Society of Cardiology. “Test your heart health by climbing stairs.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 December 2020. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/12/201211083104.htm>.
Harvard Health Publishing. “Cardiac exercise stress testing: What it can and cannot tell you”
Heart.org. “Stress and Heart Health”
J Am Coll Cardiol. 2008 Apr 1; 51(13): 1237–1246.doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2007.12.024.
HealthLine.com. “How Fast Can You Climb 4 Flights of Stairs? It May Reveal Your Heart Health”